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Texas blast victims, in their families' words

By Steve Almasy, CNN
updated 5:41 AM EDT, Fri April 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A memorial service for the first-responder victims was held Thursday
  • The 12 men died responding to a fire at a fertilizer plant that caused an explosion
  • Family members, dignitaries labeled each a hero
  • They were also good fathers and sons, relatives recall

(CNN) -- They were wives and brothers and fathers and grandmothers, and they were hurting.

They came to remember their loved ones, whom most people outside their tiny community did not know, but they wanted share just a little bit about why their loved one was special, why he was a hero.

Just more than a week ago, these families were shattered by a huge blast that tore apart apartments, set homes on fires, but most importantly, killed 14 people in the town of West in central Texas.

Town devastated by explosion is guided by the West way

On Thursday, the families joined hundreds of others, some who came from as far away as Canada, to recall the lives of the 12 men who died trying to extinguish a blaze at a fertilizer distribution plant.

The victims of the West, Texas, plant explosion

U.S. President Barack Obama attends a memorial service at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, on April 25. The memorial was held for those killed in the blast at a Texas fertilizer plant. Fourteen people, nearly all first responders, died in an explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. on April 17. See photos from the explosion. U.S. President Barack Obama attends a memorial service at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, on April 25. The memorial was held for those killed in the blast at a Texas fertilizer plant. Fourteen people, nearly all first responders, died in an explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. on April 17. See photos from the explosion.
West, Texas: A community mourns
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West, Texas: A community mourns West, Texas: A community mourns
Forensic mappers work the crater at the site of a fire and explosion in West, Texas, on April 24, 2013. The West Fertilizer Co. plant in the small Texas town exploded days earlier on April 17, killing 15 people. Forensic mappers work the crater at the site of a fire and explosion in West, Texas, on April 24, 2013. The West Fertilizer Co. plant in the small Texas town exploded days earlier on April 17, killing 15 people.
Texas fertilizer plant explodes
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Photos: Texas fertilizer plant explodes Photos: Texas fertilizer plant explodes
Giant crater marks Texas blast site
Texas blast victim expects long recovery

In prerecorded messages played during a memorial service in Waco, family members gave others a peek into the lives of the victims and what motivated them to accept a volunteer call that was so dangerous.

"Nothing made him happier than to offer his assistance to others," Lauren Snokhous, one of Doug Snokhous' daughters, said in her tribute. "Well, except to tell you about the fire or wreck later."

She called her dad and the other first-responders who rushed to the scene "a special kind of man" who loved his town.

"Caring for his community is just what he was doing that night," she said. "He never thought twice about rushing into a dangerous situation because he knew he was protecting the property and lives of his friends, family and community he loved so dearly."

The word hero came up again and again, not only from the families but also from the dignitaries, such as President Barack Obama, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. John Cornyn, who also came to pay tribute.

But perhaps the simple words of the families put behind a mic for the first time struck the most resonant chords.

Like the video of the wife of Morris Bridges, a member of the all-volunteer West fire department.

Carmen Bridges held one of the couple's young children in her arm as she read her tribute, describing the family and her husband's day job.

She struggled to keep from choking up.

She talked about how her husband would get an emergency call at night and normally would rush out of the house so fast there was no goodbye. But this time he stopped, went back to his youngest child and picked him up.

"Daddy loves you," he said. "And I'll be right back."

Some of the somber mood was broken as relatives mixed in light-hearted memories.

A grandmother of Joey Pustejousky recalled how when he came over to her house he always wanted the same thing -- fried chicken.

She said she'll always think of him whenever she makes it in the future.

"And I will put a leg aside for you," she said.

She added that she was proud of him for being a good grandson and father.

"You were just the perfect, perfect person," she said.

Kevin Sanders' brother remembered how his sibling loved to decorate his cars, including his first one on which he used latex paint to emblazon a 4-foot logo of his favorite superhero, Superman.

It wasn't unusual for Kevin to wear a red cape every now and then.

Kevin Sanders' latest car was a fire engine red Dodge Charger, which he drove to the EMT training class last week.

The students stayed in the class when the first call came in, but the second -- "Firefighters need help" -- drew an immediate response.

He didn't need his car to get to the scene; they were just 500 yards away.

"Heading off to help was exactly what Kevin and his EMT classmates were doing last Wednesday night," Sanders' brother said. "Kevin's physical presence has been taken away from us ... if by force, by fate or by divine reason that we have yet to understand. We're not sure. What is and what will never be forgotten is his joy and levity that he so freely gave to everyone he ever met."

Others were remembered as practical jokers and hunters and cowboys -- and men who weren't afraid to risk their lives to save others.

Each family told of how their relative loved being called to emergencies. How they were always the first to respond to trouble. How they didn't consider themselves heroes.

Bryce Reed said his brother was like that. Cyrus Reed died doing what he truly loved, fighting fire, Bryce Reed said. He was trying to save the lives of his fellow firefighters and emergency responders.

"But he also paid the price for you, for me, (for) strangers, simply because that is the very fabric of which Cy was woven from," Bryce said. "Cy was a firefighter, and he loved every minute of it."

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